Some Books About Illinois History
The Illinois story since the Ice Age
See Illinois (unpublished)
Works by genealogists, social engineers, dissertation authors, memoirists, and antiquarians is essential to the process of history-making, but necessarily limited and anyway hard to find. They are joined on a crowded shelf by the usual institutional autobiographies of businesses, churches, colleges, professions (especially medicine and the law), and cities. Too many of these were written by boosters, and some can hardly be said to have been written at all.
Out-of-print and hard-to-find titles from small presses are generally not mentioned here, nor are the many photo collections and works of local history that are local in every sense. (A good example of both is the popular “Images of America” series from Arcadia Publishing, which includes many Illinois-related titles, and new ones are added all the time.) Even more frustrating is the necessity of ignoring the vast accumulations of maps and newspapers.
Many of the state’s multitude of churches and professional and fraternal associations have histories—the Illinois Farm Bureau has commissioned three—but very few do authors bring the skeptical eye to the job that good history requires. We regretfully omit as too specialized many works on archaeology, wildlife ecology, and geology that Illinois’s diligent scientists have made available to us. A model for the treatment of such topics is Raymond Wiggers' Geology Underfoot in Illinois (Mountain Press, Missoula,1997), whose author accomplished that least likely of feats, writing an interesting book about some of the least interesting geology in the continental U.S.
Guide to the History of Illinois, edited by John Hoffman, offers 300 pages of listings and is usefully annotated, but it came out in 1991 and would have to have to have many more pages added to it to be up to date. My own list is by now out of date too, and far from comprehensive.
Essential to any serious student of Illinois history is A Guide to the History of Illinois, edited by John Hoffman, librarian of the Illinois Historical Survey at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (Greenwood Press, 1991). Twenty-eight contributors wax learned in bibliographical essays that cover eight periods of Illinois history; includes essays on such general topics as "Literature," "Chicago," and "Peoples of Illinois." See also the comprehensive Illinois History: An Annotated Bibliography compiled by Ellen M. Whitney, Janice Petterchak, and Sandra M. Stark, editors (Greenwood Press, 1995).
Native peoples occupied mid-Illinois for thousands of years before any Euro-American saw it, but their presence is documented only by the physical remains they left behind. The Illinois State Archeological Survey's Studies in Archaeology series brings scholarly works in that field to the serious non-specialist reader. Among the titles relevant to the understanding of mid-Illinois is Kenneth B. Farnsworth's Early Hopewell Mound Explorations: The First Fifty Years in the Illinois River Valley (Champaign: Illinois State Archeological Survey, 2004), an historical introduction to the archaeology of the lower Illinois Valley when it was a cradle of Hopewellian cultural development in the Midwest.
Koster: Americans in Search of Their Prehistoric Past by Stuart Struever and Felicia Antonelli Holton (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1979) recounts the discovery and exploration of that important archeological site in Greene County. The book set a new standard for popular works on anthropology.
The Indian city of Cahokia figures prominently in the history of Illinois. It has been the subject of many technical studies. One of the best accounts for the layperson is Cahokia: The Great Native American Metropolis by Biloine Whiting Young and Melvin L. Fowler (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000).
Euro-Americans of each generation have tended to invent whatever sort of Native Americans they need to believe in. The Indians of post-settlement Illinois thus has been regarded variously as bloodthirsty savages, as noble but doomed warriors, or as mystical guardians of the earth. More recent historians of the region have restored native peoples to their human complexity.
French and Indians of the Illinois River by Nehemiah Matson (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001) first appeared in 1874 and was reissued as one of the publisher’s Shawnee Classics, with a foreword by Rodney O. Davis. Davis notes that Matson combined the attributes of a scholar with the more dubious traits of a salesman and promoter, but that his account based on his own interviews is invaluable. Many of the events he describes took places in mid-Illinois. Judith A. Franke’s French Peoria and the Illinois Country 1673–1846 (Springfield: Illinois State Museum, 1995) is the authoritative account of that very interesting period. The French traders who came to Illinois looking for pelts brought with them missionaries looking for soul. Among the works that describe the results are The Catholic Calumet: Colonial Conversions in French and Indian North America by Tracy Neal Leavelle (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).
Historian John Mack Faragher accords the Indian her proper place in the narrative of Sugar Creek: Life On the Illinois Prairie (Yale University Press, 1986). The book examines the frontier era through that Sangamon County settlement south of Springfield where the Kickapoo had a sugaring camp.
The 100-year anniversary of Illinois’s founding was commemorated by The Centennial History of Illinois. The series (published by the Illinois Centennial commission) consisted of: The Illinois Country 1673–1818 by Clarence Walworth Alvord (1920); The Frontier State, 1818–1848 by Theodore Calvin Pease (1919); The Era of the Civil War 1848–1870 by Arthur Charles Cole (1919); The Industrial State 1870–1893 by Ernest Ludlow Bogart & Charles Manfred Thompson (1920); and The Modern Commonwealth, 1893–1918 by Ernest Ludlow Bogart and John Mabry Mathews (1920).A book fairly described as a “sort of preamble” to the series is Solon J. Bucks’s Illinois in 1818 (1917).
When Illinois’s 150th rolled around, an attempt was made to provide its citizens with new histories that would reflect the preoccupations of its era. The result was two worthy volumes: John H. Keiser’s Building for the Centuries: Illinois, 1865 to 1898 (University of Illinois Press, 1977) and Donald F. Tingley’s The Structuring of a State: Illinois, 1899 to 1928 (University of Illinois Press, 1980).
Scholars continue to find thing to say. In Frontier Illinois (Indiana University Press, 1998), which in fact is a history of Illinois until 1860, James Edward Davis provided what one critic found to be a much needed update to the Centennial History.
Theodore Calvin Pease’s The Story of Illinois (University of Chicago Press, 1925, revised and expanded by the author in 1949 and by Marguerite Jenison Pease in 1965), is generally thought the standard one-volume general history of its day. John Hoffman recommended it mainly for the elegant writing of its opening chapters.
Robert P. Howard, a veteran newspaperman in retirement, gave us Illinois: A History of the Prairie State (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972), a conventional summary that was long recommended not because it was the best, but because it was the only one-volume general history of Illinois. Howard has since been joined—in the opinion of many critics supplanted--on the shelf by Illinois: A History of the Land and Its People by Roger Biles Northern Illinois University Press (2005).
A notable alternative is Richard Jensen’s Illinois: A History (W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1978. reprinted by the University of Illinois Press as a Prairie State Book in 2001). Jensen’s is an interpretive history using the model of traditional-modern-postmodern cultures.
An unusual approach to history was taken by E. Duane and Rachel Kamm Elbert in their History from the Heart: Quilt Paths Across Illinois (Rutledge Hill Press, 1993). The work is a survey of quilt-making in Illinois (based on findings of the Illinois Quilt Research Project) that also illuminates such topics as immigration, domestic migration, and the state’s ethnic heritage.
Indian, French and frontier history
The literature inspired by the long occupation of Metro East by Native Americans peoples in what is now Metro East is extensive. Most of it is highly technical, some of it eccentric. Among the few anthropologically informed histories for the non-specialist is Cahokia Mounds by Timothy R. Pauketat and Nancy Stone Bernard (Oxford University Press, 2004). "Enlightening and entertaining" was the verdict by Cahokia scholar Thomas Emerson on Cahokia, the Great Native American Metropolis by Biloine Whiting Young and Melvin L. Fowler (University of Illinois Press, 2000). The more casual reader might prefer Cahokia: City of the Sun: Prehistoric Urban Center in the American Bottom by Claudia G. Mink (Cahokia Mounds Museum Society, 1992).
The French interregnum in Illinois is only slightly less studied than the Native American occupation. Among the books aimed at the interested non-specialist are French Roots in the Illinois Country: The Mississippi Frontier in Colonial Times by Carl J. Ekberg (University of Illinois Press 2000) and French And Indians of Illinois River by Nehemiah Matson, reprinted with a new introduction by Rodney O. Davis in the Shawnee Classics series (Southern Illinois University Press, 2001).
In Prairie Albion: An English Settlement in Pioneer Illinois by Charles Boewe (Southern Illinois University Press 1999, a reprint of the 1962 original) we revisit the English Settlement near the Wabash River as reconstructed from eyewitness accounts. The English Settlement also figures in Morris Birkbeck’s Notes on a Journey in America (1817) and Letters from Illinois (1818); John Hallwas praises Birbeck as, variously, a minor de Toqueville, a frontier Thoreau, and an early Illinois Jefferson.
Milton Quaife in 1920 cleaned up the manuscript and added useful footnotes to the edition of George Rogers Clark’s accounts of The Conquest of the Illinois that was reprinted in 2001 by Southern Illinois University Press.
Whole books have been devoted to villains such as Highwaymen and River Pirates Who Operated in Pioneer Days upon the Ohio and Mississippi by Otto A. Rothert and Robert Clark (January 1996; Southern Illinois University Press) and The Outlaws of Cave-In-Rock by Otto A. Rothert. The latter, first published in 1924, is today regarded as a classic, and the indefatigable SIU Press reprinted it in 1996.
A quieter trip was had by Reuben Gold Thwaites. In Afloat on the Ohio: An Historical Pilgrimage of a Thousand Miles in a Skiff, from Redstone to Cairo (Southern Illinois University Press, 1999) the author retraced the route take by so many early explorers, traders, and settlers. A reprint of the original 1897 edition.
The Sangamo Frontier: History and Archaeology in the Shadow of Lincoln by Robert Mazrim (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2007) is an informal report of many years of archeological excavations through which he attempts to bring the life of the frontier era of the region. As his publisher puts it, “Mazrim deftly uses his findings to portray the homes, farms, taverns, and pottery shops where Lincoln's neighbors once lived and worked.”
One of the best recent works of Illinois history is Illinois in the War of 1812 by Gillum Ferguson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012). Among its virtues are his vivid portraits of the Indians of that era. My review is here.
It is arguable whether the Black Hawk War was one. Writers were drawn to the uprising led by Chief Black Hawk in 1832 from the start, finding irresistible its blood and betrayal its significance as the last armed resistance to white encroachment east of the Mississippi. Early accounts by the political leaders at the time such as Reynolds’ History of Illinois: My Own Times, were, understandably critical. Theodore Calvin Pease devotes part of his The Frontier State, 1818–1848 (reprinted by the University of Illinois Press, 1987) to one of the best short accounts of the events leading to the war, with due sympathy to Native Americans and alertness to the misunderstanding inherent in any dealing between people of such disparate cultures, although it has some factual errors.
Most later histories advocate one side or the other. (Whether an account refers to Black Hawk’s people “invading Illinois or “returning” there gives a good indication of the author’s sympathies.) Among the more recent pro-Indian accounts are Miriam Gurko’s Indian America: The Black Hawk War (Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1970) and Clide Hollman and John Mitchum’s Black Hawk's War, (Aeurbach Publishers, Inc., 1973).
Novelists as well as historians have rendered these events into novels about the war itself from both Indian and white points of view and adventure stories in which the war provides backdrop or incident. Most deserve the oblivion into which they have fallen, but there are exceptions. Thomas L. Kilpatrick and Patsy-Rose Hoshiko, the compilers of “Illinois! Illinois!,” the vast annotated bibliography of fiction at the Southern Illinois University Library, thought The Shining Trail by Iola Fuller (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1943) brought “genuine understanding and sympathy for the Indian.” Another perspective is provide by A Man Should Rejoice by Virginia Gordon (Westminster Press, 1943) which “presents the incidents leading to the Indian uprising from the point of view of the weary, often frightened, but doggedly determined settler.”
No Civil War battles were fought on Illinois soil, but Illinoisans have had ample experience fighting in other places. The Civil War has left behind a library of unit histories, collections of letters and diaries from men at the front. Typical of the better ones is In Their Letters, in Their Words: Illinois Civil War Soldiers Write Home by Mark Flotow (Southern Illinois University Press. 2019).
In addition to the many unit histories, one can read Illinois in the Civil War by Victor Hicken (University of Illinois Press, 1991, revised version of the 1966 original) which tells the story of the war from the view of the experience of the state’s common soldiers. Buffs will find the bibliography of sources on Illinois regiments useful.
Unit histories abound. The extent of this trove can be guessed at from the second edition of Hicken’s book, which had to add a twenty-five-page addendum to the original bibliography to list the new sources of information on Illinois regiments that became available since its initial release in 1966. That list would have to be enlarged again for a third edition.
Life on the home front has its chroniclers but the best remain official histories such as Arthur Charles Cole’s The Era of the Civil War, 1848–1870 (which was first published in 1919 as a volume in the Centennial History of Illinois by the Illinois Centennial Commission, and reprinted in 1987 by the University of Illinois Press) and Illinois in the Second World War by Mary Watters (Illinois State. Historical Library, 1952), comprises two volumes, Operation Home Front and The Production Front.
Soldiers Back Home: The American Legion in Illinois, 1919–1939 by Thomas B. Littlewood (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004) is a proper political and social history of an organization that had political as well as social significance.
Biographies of U.S. Grant usually scant his links to Galena. Among the few scholarly works on that phase of his life is Galena, Grant, and the Fortunes of War: A History of Galena, Illinois during the Civil War by Kenneth N. Owens (Northern Illinois University Press, 1963).
Rock Island’s prison camp for Confederate soldiers has been damned as the Andersonville of the North, but Benton McAdams, gives a more balanced treatment in Rebels at Rock Island: The Story of a Civil War Prison (Northern Illinois University Press, 2000).
A few of the many scholarly articles that are worth reading appear in the more convenient-to-find form of the anthology. One such is Essays In Illinois History In Honor Of Glenn Huron Seymour (edited by Donald F. Tingley, and published for Eastern Illinois University by Southern Illinois University Press, 1968).
Easier to find is An Illinois Reader, edited by Clyde C. Walton (Northern Illinois University Press, 1970), which offers a sampling of twenty-five articles from publications of the Illinois State Historical Society. The state’s sesquicentennial in 1968 also spurred the publication of Prairie State: Impressions of Illinois, 1673–1967, by Travelers and Other Observers, which was compiled and edited by Paul M. Angle (University of Chicago Press, 1968).
Illinois: Its History and Legacy (River City Publishers, 1984), Roger D. Bridges and Rodney O. Davis collected eighteen short articles on selected topics in the field. such as Richard J. Jensen on sectionalism in Illinois politics. Robert P. Sutton compiled The Prairie State: A Documentary History of Illinois, which appeared in two volumes subtitled The Formative Years and Civil War To the Present (Eerdmans, 1976).
The Heartland: Pages From Illinois History (Deerpath Publishing Co., 1995) was compiled and edited by Robert M. Sutton, the Director of the Illinois Historical Survey from 1965 to 1984; Sutton intended the work as an introduction to students at all levels to the most important episodes in Illinois history.
The unwritten Illinois classics
Many essential works of Illinois history haven't yet been written. Illinois industrialization was more than the Pullman strike and the Haymarket affair, for example, but you would hardly know it by looking at the bookshelves. The contributors to the excellent 1991 A Guide To the History of Illinois, listed a few of the larger holes in the record. Mark A. Plummer pointed out that there is a “clear need for a comprehensive history of coal mining in the state, one that uses available studies, investigates new questions, and rationalizes the entire topic.” Thirty years later, there still is.
Perry Duis noted the odd fact that the more important events of Chicago’s past, such as the Civil War and the Great Fire, are often the least studied by scholars. Works that make sense of the city's many untouched specialized topics remain scarce; Duis lists the Progressive era, Chicago culture, and ethnic groups among the topics that need synthesis. About the last, neither the Germans or the Irish of Chicago have comprehensive histories their rich pasts deserve.
Ralph Stone, writing in A Guide To the History of Illinois, agrees that “a thorough work on the Illinois miners would be a signal contribution to national as well as state history.” He adds that there should be much more on the history of women and that quantitative studies of social conditions are wanting. Both lacunae are being filled, but a major investigation of the Chicago/Downstate conflict still is needed. Historian John D. Buenke lamented the fact that Illinois’s size and importance, there is no comprehensive history of the Progressive era in the state.
Hoffman's experts noted too that more studies that compare Illinois history to that of other states and the nation at large should be undertaken. Cullom Davis, in the aforementioned Guide, states, “The full extent of reform and modernization in the Illinois legislature since 1945 needs careful analysis.” Titus M. Karlowicz and Sarah Hanks Karlowicz add, “In studies of the arts in Illinois history, both architecture and music have received more attention than painting, sculpture, and the decorative arts. Moreover, the record for Chicago is far better than that for the state as a whole.” ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
Politics & government
Arts & culture